The other day I saw a newspaper story which said an increasing number of elementary schools are replacing their digital clocks with analog clocks—that is, they’re bringing back the old-fashioned clocks with the little hands that tell the hours and the big hands that tell the minutes. The idea, of course, is to help their students learn how to tell time using both types of clocks. Human beings measure and record time in many different ways. Liturgical time, for instance, refers to the Church year. Today, for example, is the Second Sunday of Advent—meaning we’re already one week into the new liturgical year. As it happens, for the Jewish people today is the first day of Hanukkah—an eight-day celebration of a miracle during the days of Judas Maccabeus, some 150 years before Christ. The Jewish people had driven out foreign invaders, and were rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem, but there was a problem: there was only enough oil left to keep the lamp in the sanctuary burning for one day, and it would take eight days to bring in more. Trusting that God would provide, Judas Maccabeus had his men light the lamp—and the small amount of oil actually lasted all eight days until more oil became available.
The passing of time can be miraculous, or elusive, or confusing, and sometimes the way we measure it can be surprising. Years ago the telephone operator in a small town received a call from the same gentleman every day requesting the correct time. Finally she asked why he kept calling for that information, and he explained, “I need to know the exact time because I have to blow the town whistle precisely at noon.” “Well then, we may have a problem,” said the operator, “because I always set my clock by your whistle” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 383). It’s very useful to know the exact time according to the clock, but it’s more important to be aware of the passage of time in regard to the course of our lives. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who became famous for her work with dying persons, once said, “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had” (Steve May, The Story File, p. 301). The ancient Greek language has two words for time: chronos, which means time as measured in days, months, and years, and chairos, which refers to the proper moment for something to occur—especially in terms of God’s eternal plan intersecting with human history. As human beings, we live in the realm of time, but we are destined for eternity—and therefore, the wisest and most important thing we can do is to invest the minutes and hours and days of our lives in knowing, loving, and serving God, for only in this way will we be ready to live with Him forever.
The readings on the Second Sunday of Advent speak of how God’s eternal plan of salvation unfolds in human history, with each reading giving us an important lesson. The prophet Baruch, writing at the time of the Jewish exile, foretold a coming day of redemption, in which God would liberate His people from their bondage and bring them back to their holy city of Jerusalem—a prophecy that was indeed fulfilled. Thus, we’re told that God never forgets or abandons His people, and that in our darkest hours we are always to continue hoping in Him. A second lesson comes from the Gospel, in which St. Luke describes the exact time when John the Baptist began his mission of preparing for the arrival of the promised Savior: in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor and Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, and while Caiaphas served as high priest. Luke doesn’t present the Good News of salvation as a “once upon a time” story or fable, but as an actual event that occurred within measurable human history. This is how we must live out the Gospel: not as some vague religious sentiment, but as a practical commitment having real implications for the things we do and value and decide every day. In other words, our faith must make a real difference in how we live. The third lesson comes from the 2nd Reading, in which St. Paul prays that our love “may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that [we] may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. . . .” This means that we must never become complacent in regard to our relationship with God; rather, each moment of earthly time granted to us in life should help us continue growing in grace, so that we’ll be ready for eternity.
Someone once calculated that if a person lived 75 years, he or she would, on average, use this much time on these activities: 23 years sleeping; 19 years working; 9 years watching TV, using the computer, or engaging in other forms of entertainment; 7 1⁄2 years in dressing and personal hygiene; 6 years eating; 5 years standing in line; 4 years doing housework; 1 year searching for misplaced objects; and only six months worshipping and praying (Zuck, p. 383; Homily Notebook, “Time”). In other words, the most important thing of all, in terms of knowing God and preparing ourselves to meet Him, receives by far the smallest amount of time. Obviously, we can’t all go off to a monastery, or completely rearrange our schedules and make radical changes to our lifestyles, nor is it necessary that we do so; all the activities mentioned above do have their proper place in life. Moreover, we can consecrate all these things, or make them holy, by consciously offering them to God as a sacrifice for His glory, and sometimes we can also pray as we’re doing them. Even more important than this, however, is to live in a spirit of awareness, reminding ourselves that God is always present, that He has a wonderful and important mission for us to achieve in life, and that everything this world offers is of only temporary value and will eventually pass away. One very practical example of this approach to life is to take the time to appreciate these weeks of Advent, spending a little extra time in prayer, going out of our way to help others, and using reflection booklets and other resources to enter into the spirit of this liturgical season, so as to prepare ourselves to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. In today’s busy world, we need to make a conscious decision and effort to step back and see the larger picture. Time passes; eternity endures—and therefore we must use the former to prepare ourselves for the latter. St. John the Baptist calls us to “prepare the way of the Lord,” and this means, above all else, making sure Jesus is honored in everything we say and do.